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[Photos] Saigoneer's Best Original Photography of 2020

Is it possible to ruminate on the past 12 months without agonizing over the looming threat of COVID-19 and the grief it has inflicted on global communities? Perhaps not, but if there’s any place in the world where that might be possible, it’s Vietnam.

From the very first cases imported from China back in January to the deadly cluster in a slew of hospitals in Da Nang to the recent flare-up in Saigon, Vietnam has had its fair share of coronavirus-induced stress. In April, the country underwent four weeks of intensified social distancing: restaurants were ordered to shutter, coffee shops took their cà phê sữa đá online, and once-crowded pavements were engulfed by an eerie emptiness.

For a while, Vietnam stopped being Vietnam. Elsewhere, in centralized quarantine facilities, repatriated students and workers went back to the uniquely collegiate quirks of communal living. At home, Saigoneers had to re-adapt to life sans streetside trà đá or cafe-hopping. Rideshare workers and street food vendors were forced to put their only source of income on hold.

Still, thanks to sterling leadership by health officials and the collective sacrifice and compliance of Vietnamese, each new outbreak was assuredly tempered, and even though the subsequent economic damage remains, life, festivities, travel, and physical touch between friends and family resumed as if never revoked.

Coronavirus aside, October and November saw the arrival an unprecedented series of tropical storms, each seemingly more ferocious than its predecessor. Communities across central Vietnam were plunged into homelessness, destitution, sickness, and even heartbreak over losing family members.

Saigoneer and our contributors have been lucky, if that's the right word, to be able to capture some of these moments over the past year. In between empty chairs at empty tables, there are instances of celebration, altruism and resilience. Here are some of our favorite shots, in no particular order, from 2020:

Photo by Adrien Jean.

At the beginning of the year, the coronavirus pandemic reached Vietnam right in the middle of the Tet holiday, and thus kick-started a flurry of panic purchases, from instant noodles to hand sanitizer. Face masks became the must-have fashion accessory du jour.

See more photos of Saigon’s “new normal” here.

Photo by Anh Nguyen.

Young Vietnamese in an impromptu match of football in a courtyard of the Vietnam National University in Thu Duc District. To accommodate the surge of repatriating citizens, city officials turned the college’s dorm into a temporary quarantine facility.

Read the personal account of a Vietnamese citizen who returned from the US here.

Photo by Maxwell Gutteridge.

In April, Vietnam went through the strictest level of social distancing so far, when citizens were actively discouraged from leaving home. Crowded urban areas like Saigon became deserted, a state that’s only observed during Tet.

Walk around Saigon under lockdown through the photos here.

Photos by Christian Berg.

Saigon street life rendered through the nostalgic lens of film photography.

See more photos here.

Photos by Adrien Jean.

Framed by the shape of train windows, the slices of Vietnam’s landscapes appear as if they belong to a collection of terraria. The sea, paddy fields, urban intersections — there’s something for everyone to enjoy in this photo essay.

See the entire photo set here.

Photos by Jim Selkin.

Muay Thai, the traditional martial art of Thailand, is slowly gaining a footing in Vietnam. At a gym in District 5, enthusiasts train and participate in tournaments to hone their craft.

Find out more about Muay Thai in Saigon here and here.

Photos by Khoi Pham.

While Vietnam has so far evaded major societal setbacks and high fatalities, COVID-19 has crippled the local economy, especially sectors that rely on tourists. At Ben Thanh Market, one of Saigon’s top tourism destinations, a lack of foot traffic has resulted in an exodus of tenants.

Visit a forlorn Ben Thanh Market here.

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

A swath of the sidewalk in District 1 becomes the prepping station for a bánh mì chảo stall.

Read our review of Bánh Mì Chảo Đặng Trần Côn here.

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

A woman in Saigon gleefully picks up folded VND5,000 bills during the Hungry Ghost Festival in September. Enterprises believe that the more offerings they give out, the more prosperous the next year’s business will be.

Read about the traditions surrounding Ghost Month here.

Photo by Alden Anderson.

A flooded Hoi An is not uncommon, but this year’s storm season has proven uncharacteristically overbearing. Local residents, however, are no stranger to waterlogged living, and many took it in stride.

See more photos here.

Photo by Adrien Jean.

Young monks record a boat race on their smartphones at the Ooc Om Bok Festival in Soc Trang. The impressive dragon boats are 22 to 24 meters long and carry 50 to 60 rowers.

See more photos here.

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Even after the typhoons left, landslides, flooding, and damaged homes continue to make life extremely difficult for storm-battered communities in central Vietnam. Here, a mother in Quang Binh Province couldn’t hold back her tears after finding out that her son was a confirmed victim of a sudden mudslide.

Read our photographer’s personal account of his experience following a charity delegation's visit into the storms’ aftermath here.

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